Guest post by Indur M. Goklany
Sir David King, erstwhile Chief Scientific Adviser to Her Majesty’s Government, famous for his claim that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism,” had an op-ed in the Telegraph over the weekend, in which he notes that the IPCC runs against the spirit of science. [Full disclosure: I have previously tangled with Sir David on the pages of Science magazine, here.] He states, absolutely correctly in my opinion:
“Faced with the social need to tell the world what the science says, the IPCC was set up as a means of seeking consensus. My concern has always been that it runs against the normal spirit of science.” [Quotes are italicized; emphasis added.]
He explains, “In science, people are supposed to rock the boat,” and ideas have to survive “ordeal by fire.” So thank you, Sir David, for endorsing skepticism and the scientific method. In our world, that cannot be repeated often enough.
- He then notes that:
“emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia suggest that certain members of the IPCC felt that the consensus was so precious that some external challenges had to be kept outside the discussion. That is clearly not acceptable.
“Moreover, this leads to the danger that people will go beyond the science that is truly reliable, and pick up almost anything that seems to support the argument [such as] saying that all ice would vanish from the Himalayas within the next 30 years … When I heard Dr Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, declare this at Copenhagen last December I could hardly believe my ears. This issue is far too important for scientists to risk crossing the line into advocacy.” [Emphasis added.]
So far, so good. Sir David recognizes that one can be a scientist or an advocate, but not both at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive. That is because skepticism is integral to the scientific method which, in turn, is the essence of science. On the other hand, advocacy eschews skepticism of one’s position.
Sir David’s revisionist Apologia for IPCC’s transgressions
But then he offers an apologia for these “scientists”:
“However, it’s not all the IPCC’s fault. Climate scientists have been forced into this corner by a disastrous combination of cynical lobbying and a misguided desire for certainty. The American lobby system, driven by political and economic vested interests in fossil fuels, seeks to use any challenge to undermine the entire body of science. The drive for consensus has come to some extent because the scientific community (me included) has become frustrated with this willful misuse of the scientific process.” [Emphasis added.]
This is revisionism. First, “climate scientists” were not forced into any corner. They chose to move into that corner freely. The IPCC could have summarized salient points without exaggerating the consequences of climate change had they been upfront with caveats, and heeded comments to avoid sins of omissions.
Second, it was not lobbyists for “vested interests in fossil fuels” that badgered IPCC scientists into exaggerating the rate of Himalayan glacier melt, omitting estimates of the decrease in the population at risk of water shortage, or eschewing comparisons of the relative contribution of climate change to malaria or hunger. Nor was it these interests that lobbied for expressions of greater certainty from the IPCC about the science, impacts and policies related to climate change. In fact, that pressure came from environmental NGOs, multilateral organizations, European governments, and the governments of small island nations, and proclamations of powerful people and leaders of various institutions. These pronouncements included, in addition to Sir David King’s claim that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today–more serious even than the threat of terrorism,” repeated claims that “the science is settled” (e.g., Al Gore), or that climate change is the most important environmental problem facing the globe this century (Presidents Clinton and Chirac, and PM Blair).
This onslaught was accompanied by efforts to marginalize and ridicule those who looked askance at either the science or, if they accepted the science, their favored policy prescription, namely, massive and immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. For the longest time — until the Delhi Ministerial Declaration at COP-8 in November 2002 — it was almost taboo to even suggest adaptation. Dissenters and non-conformists were labeled “skeptics” and “flat earthers”, as if skepticism were anathema, forgetting that it took skepticism to reject the age-old consensus that the earth was flat. This offensive silenced many dissenters and would-be dissenters. But despite this onslaught, there remained a hard core that would not hew to the orthodoxy. Accordingly, some raised the rhetorical stakes by attaching the term “deniers” with its ugly connotations, to the skeptics.
Thus, if anyone forced or badgered the IPCC into dropping caveats, insisting that the science was more certain than warranted, and embellishing climate change impacts and their severity, it was the greens, their groupies and their political allies. It was their pressure that led some IPCC scientists to become complicit in the war against the scientific method, as is revealed in their failure to defend skepticism; in their occasional use of “skeptic” as a pejorative (see here); and in their efforts to keep skeptical papers out of the peer reviewed literature, and viewpoints out of IPCC reports.
The “Schneider Trap”: A Scientist cannot be an Advocate at the same time
Another reason for scientists crossing the line into advocacy that Sir David sweeps under the rug is the possibility that many of the scientists were themselves not disinterested participants. One of the minor revelations in the CRU e-mails — in case one doubted it — is that scientists and science institutions are not disinterested in obtaining funding. In the US alone, annual funding for the Climate and Global Change Research Program exceeds $2 billion. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of institutes worldwide to study climate change funded not only by governments but philanthropies and foundations. [Sir David, for instance, is the Director of Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment which is funded by both public and private sources.] Obviously, such sums would not be forthcoming were it shown that climate change, even if it’s happening, is no big deal. So scientists—and non-scientists—in the business of “climate science” have a vested interest in suggesting not only that global warming may be happening but that its impacts could be large, if not severe or catastrophic.
The “Schneider Trap”. Then, of course, as Stephen Schneider has noted:
“On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”
The problem with this is that it assumes that one can be a scientist and advocate simultaneously. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this the “Schneider Trap.” But, as recognized by Sir David and argued above, these two roles are mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, some IPCC “scientists” have fallen into the Schneider Trap. But they chose to be advocates willingly, thereby ceasing to be scientists, in my opinion. This might explain why, at critical junctures, the IPCC Summary for Policy Makers sometimes presents information that makes the impacts of global warming seem far worse than it actually might be, as noted on these pages and elsewhere (see here and here).
Logical fallacies regarding the cause of climate change
The most revealing part of Sir David’s op-ed, however, is the following passage which illustrates a pitfall that those with insufficient skepticism can fall victim to:
“We know from thermometers and satellites that temperatures have risen at least 0.8C. There is now massive monitoring of the loss of land ice around the planet, including the ground-breaking double satellite gravitational measurements. We have robust data on rising sea levels, the acidification of our oceans, and the spectacular multidimensional details of how climate has changed in the past.”
“Given all this evidence, it’s ridiculous to say this that human-induced climate change isn’t happening, absurd to say we don’t understand why, and any suggestion that we have nothing to worry about is like making a very bad bet.” [Emphasis added.]
This is poor logic. Just because one detects warming, it does not follow that it is necessarily human-induced. These paragraphs point to one of the major disagreements between climate change skeptics and “conformists.” Most skeptics do not dispute that it has warmed, although most, in my opinion, are skeptical that we know the amount of warming with sufficient accuracy to make quantitative pronouncements about how much or how fast it has warmed during the past century. And they certainly would not conclude that because it is warming, human beings must necessarily be responsible.
And how does it follow logically that given the evidence of climate change, it’s “absurd to say we don’t understand why”?
Sir David then compounds these errors in logic by insisting, “We know that we need to decarbonise our economy, so let’s do it.” But what is the basis for this claim? This assumes not only that human beings are necessarily responsible for whatever warming we might have seen, but also that the human contribution is (largely) through the CO2 route. But what about other factors, such as soot, changes in land use and land cover, etc.? And, of course, it also assumes that the impacts will be, on the whole, negative, and that adaptation will be MORE costly than mitigation. But none of these have been shown to be the case. At best, they remain plausible hypotheses. It was precisely such hypotheses that the IPCC was originally formed to assess impartially and critically — something it seems to be failing at.
If a scientist as distinguished as Sir David King, once HMG’s Chief Scientific Adviser, could make such fundamental errors in logic, it’s hardly surprising that a good share of humanity, even those who are well educated and, presumably, less-than-gullible, could make similar errors. Much of the public support for doing “something” about global warming comes, perhaps, from this segment of society.
Despite faulty reasoning, Sir David, however, has it right that we should get on with the business of innovation and wealth creation. This is the right solution but for reasons beyond those articulated by him. Not only will this help us cope with any challenges posed by global warming but, more generally, with climate change, regardless of which direction the change is in. More importantly, it will help us address other far more important challenges to environmental and human well-being (see here).